WHICH country has a world-class education system, fabulous food, is only minutes away and where the word “lah” can be used without incurring a puzzled look?
No prizes for guessing Singapore. The city-state’s proximity to Malaysia coupled with top-ranked institutions has made it the choice of a select group of Malaysians bright enough to gain a place.
The country’s three universities – National University of Singapore, Nanyang Technological University and Singapore Management University – have established a reputation for providing quality education.
In Asiaweek magazine’s 2000 ranking, NUS placed fifth among multi-disciplinary universities in the Asia-Pacific region while NTU placed ninth among science and technology institutions. SMU was not ranked as it was only established in 2000. In comparison, the highest-ranked Australian universities occupied eighth, ninth and 10th places.
Malaysian Nikki Koswanage cites quality, affordability and proximity as the reasons for choosing NUS despite being offered a place at a few top-ranked American universities.
“It’s closer to home and the cost of travelling back for the holidays isn’t that exorbitant compared to countries like Australia or the UK. It’s very convenient and only five hours from Kuala Lumpur. If you are homesick, you can always take a bus home and not have to worry too much about the cost,” she explains.
Students who come to Singapore also don’t have to deal with culture shock unlike those who go to the United States or Australia.
“Singapore and Malaysia share the same culture and language. Plus I don’t have to deal with climate changes or worry about food like my friends who are studying overseas,” says Nikki, a first year NUS undergraduate who hopes to major in political science and minor in English literature.
Prof Tan Chin Tiong, provost of SMU, says affordability and location are the key reasons for Singapore’s popularity among Malaysians.
Why affordable? Because of a unique scheme introduced by Singapore’s Education Ministry called the Tuition Grant subsidy.
Any student who gains a place at a Singapore university or polytechnic gets a tuition grant for the whole tenure of his study.
With the grant, a student pays only 30% of the actual cost of the academic programme or S$6,220 (about RM13,700) per year for a degree while polytechnic students are charged S$2,150 (RM4,730) for a diploma. The full tuition ranges from S$18,000-S$20,000 (RM39,600-RM44,000).
Although this might seem high to a Malaysian who pays RM2,000 a year in tuition fees at local universities, Prof Tan says the amount needs to be considered in perspective.
“In comparison to universities in the UK, US, and Australia, Singapore universities offer excellent value for money with their quality programmes. In addition, the graduates may explore career and job opportunities in Singapore after graduation.”
One of the conditions for obtaining the grant is that foreign students are required to work in Singapore or with a Singapore-registered company for at least three years.
Only full-time employment with companies registered in Singapore will be counted towards the serving of the bond. The job does not have to be related to the field of study in the polytechnic or university. A graduate who is unable to find a job in Singapore will be released from the bond.
Second year NUS law undergraduate Priscilla Tsu-Jyen Shumugam says that without the grant she would not have been able to go to NUS. “The fact that I would receive the grant was an important consideration as it covered almost 70% of my tuition fees.”
Those who are still unable to afford the subsidised rate can apply for a loan through the tuition fee and study loan schemes respectively which will cover the tuition fee as well as an annual living allowance of up to S$3,600 (RM7,920) a year.
“The government has made efforts to provide international students with as much financial help as possible. These two loans schemes cover all the students’ expenses during his time in Singapore. In addition, no interest is charged until after graduation,” says NUS Admission Officer Andy Wong.
“Apart from the grant and the loan schemes, you can also take a S$2,000 (RM4,400) loan to buy yourself a notebook PC – all of which are interest free until graduation,” adds Priscilla.
In its website, the Education Ministry says that Singapore’s undergraduate university education aspires to prepare students not only for today’s world but also for a world where there will be jobs that have yet to be invented and challenges not yet foreseen.
The country’s universities have initiated a number of innovative programmes, including the broadening of undergraduate education, the introduction of a core curriculum, collaborations with top foreign universities, and the establishment of inter-disciplinary centres.
In line with these aims, Singapore actively seeks top scorers from around the world. The government has in fact set a target of 20% international students in its education institutions.
Despite being offered a place to do law at Universiti Malaya, Priscilla decided to go down south.
“I’ve always wanted to further my studies abroad after secondary school but Singapore was never the obvious choice because I knew I needed outstanding academic grades to get accepted.”
Better-than-expected STPM results however led to her being offered a place in NUS. Despite being warned about the high-pressure environment, Priscilla was not daunted by the challenge. “I knew that what I had to go through would prepare me better for the working world. Anyway I work best under pressure.”
International recognition was also a determining factor. “I wanted a degree that wouldn’t limit me geographically,” Priscilla explains.
Standards are high. As an international student, she had to sit for a written test and go through an interview before being accepted.
Nikki chose NUS because of its dynamic professors, strong English Literature department and interesting courses on film and gender, representations of Asians in the American public imagination, “things which I never came across in a Malaysian college.”
An NUS degree, at whichever faculty, does not come without consistent hard work. Priscilla says that NUS does not tolerate consecutive semesters of poor grades and that a lot of independent work is expected of students.
“Those who do not perform even after formal warnings are asked to leave the university. The standards are high, the expectations even higher. But this is what makes NUS graduates highly sought after.”
The high exchange rate is one of the worrying factors for potential Malaysian students. At RM2.20 to S$1, it’s even higher than Australia and New Zealand.
However, this is offset by the fact that Malaysia is so close and travelling home does not burn a hole in the pocket.
“The high exchange rate is a real pain but most of the international students like myself manage our living expenses carefully, without having to compromise too much on entertainment or leisure,” says Priscilla.
Of course, you don’t know what you’ve got till its gone. Priscilla has learnt to appreciate home so much more after coming to Singapore.
“Things that you take for granted such as that plate of nasi lemak in Bangsar or fried kuay teow in SS2, ridiculously cheap sandals from Vincci or paying RM6 to watch a movie on Wednesdays.”
A big chunk of the budget goes to accommodation, food and transport. At NUS, students stay in a Hall of Residence (which provides meals) or apartment-like rooms (excludes meals). SMU has the College Green, two-storey bungalows that can accommodate six people.
NTU’s halls come with amenities such as lounges, TV rooms, air-conditioned reading rooms, laundry facilities and kitchenettes; some even have dance studios and music rooms.
Nikki lives in Prince George’s Park Residence, in NUS, which has single rooms for those who like privacy. “Many students who come to NUS stay in the halls during the first year and then move to single rooms when the work gets tougher and you need more time to yourself.”
Priscilla too has chosen to stay on-campus, describing accommodation there as clean, convenient and reasonably priced.
“It ranges from about S$55 (RM121) to S$70 (RM154) a week for a single, fully-furnished room with toilet, kitchen, laundry and sports facilities.”
Competition for campus accommodation in NUS is tough and students need to be active to stay in the halls of residence.
“On-campus accommodation is only guaranteed for international students for the first two years. However, during these two years, if you wish to stay in one of the hall of residences, you have to earn enough Extra Curricular Activity (ECA) points to keep your room.” The ECA point system is an additional form of pressure.
“If you want the points, there will be committees to join, meetings to attend, reports or proposals to prepare and activities to co-ordinate. However, it’s always good to keep active as a good ECA record will help when applying for a job after graduation.”
Part-time work is allowed. Foreign students seeking employment must possess a letter of authorisation from their respective institutions.
Even with the high exchange rate, Priscilla feels that Malaysian students in Singapore lead a more comfortable life compared to those studying in Australia.
“Some students get part-time jobs such as waitressing or clerical jobs which pay up to S$8 (RM17.60) an hour, and with “income’ like this, you can enjoy a day out on Orchard Road or a night out with your friends without feeling guilty”.
Singapore boasts a vibrant cultural life, even more so for students. “Singaporeans are big on culture and if you have a talent you would do well to showcase it here,” says Nikki.
International arts and entertainment acts come to the city-state all year round. “There’s always something happening every weekend. Any arts enthusiast will drool at the sight of the year-old Esplanade,” adds Priscilla.
Singapore can best be described as a hybrid which offers a combination of Western development and Eastern culture. The Government’s tagline is “Singapore – New Asia”. It is a multicultural city, and close to one-quarter of its four million population are expatriates or foreign workers from all over the world.
Known for being a well-planned and orderly country with a corruption-free Government, Singapore is also easy to get around due to its small size and affordable and efficient public transport system.
Shopping (along Orchard Road), eating, the Singapore Zoological Gardens and Night Safari, Sentosa Island, cultural events and festivals are just some of the attractions. The latest addition is The Esplanade - Theatres on the Bay, the new national arts hub.
As a patriotic Malaysian, it took Priscilla a while to learn to appreciate Singapore and NUS. The initial complaints and criticisms were inevitable.
“I still have a long list, but I’ve started a list of things I happen to like about being here including the freedom and independence as well as the chance to take part in a spectrum of activities.”
Many times Priscilla has to act as an ambassador of Malaysia. “I am questioned so much about our culture and political issues. Looking at things from afar gives me a much more non-biased view.”
Other than studies, Priscilla keeps herself occupied by training with a local dance company, teaches kids dance, and performs with the NUS Dance Ensemble. In addition, she organises drama events for the NUS Law Club and is a member of the NUS Students’ Union International Relations Committee which takes care of all foreign students in NUS.
“The cosmopolitan environment of Singapore is also what I truly like. I’ve met all kinds of people and broadened my perspectives on a lot of issues. I have an international cocktail of friends whom I enjoy shopping, partying and cooking disastrous meals with.”
Other than the arts, Priscilla enjoys shopping in Singapore. “The latest computer and electronic technology comes here first – and is often at a better price. Shopping in Singapore is heaven if you appreciate style and fashion. The sales are always better too!”
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